I Think, Therefore…? Critical Thinking is Bull

I hate the phrase ‘critical thinking’ or any variation thereof (e.g., critical thinking skills, think critically). These are just words that mean nothing. I challenge you to ask three people to define ‘critical thinking’ and take note of two things: 1) how long it takes for them to reply, and 2) the content of their response. I bet my next paycheck that 1) it will take them at least 2 sentences to define it, and the sentences will be halted and filled with pauses, back tracks, and ‘uhmms’, and 2) the content will revolve around ‘thinking outside of the box’ or ‘seeing from another’s perspective’.

What the hell is thinking outside the box? Is the ‘box’ our brain? Is the box our perspective? Where is this box? I would like to smash it.

I do not let my students say empty phrases like ‘critical thinking’, ‘at risk students’ (this one reeeaaallly irks my nerves), ‘whole person’ (as in ‘educate the whole person’), ‘active participant in learning’ or all of those other things journalists spout in headlines. They are misused, misunderstood, and misappropriated. I force my students to be specific in their language and find the words that really convey their thoughts. It’s hard work to say what you think. It requires time, and well, thought.

To me, that is thinking critically. A critical analysis implies reflection, validity (i.e., substantiated statements, not opinions), synthesis of information garnered from multiple sources, domain general thinking, and revision(s) of thoughts. In a lot of ways, it is a catch-all construct encompassing metacognitive skills we want to cultivate in our students. Great. Let’s do that…

Instead of acting like we are doing it by saying ‘critical thinking’ repeatedly via syllabi, course descriptions, assignment instructions, and grading rubrics. Let’s actually scaffold the development of these skills through:

  • Student self assessment
  • Peer assessment
  • Student goal setting and consequent student work plans
  • Formative assessments
  • Quality feedback (this means, yes, you have to actually write specific, personalized comments)
  • Provide process-oriented feedback (as opposed to outcome-oriented like ‘great work!’ Instead, consider writing ‘I can tell your paper is well researched’)
  • Well crafted assessments (i.e., those with validity and reliability)
  • Diverse assessments (you can’t assess everything via multiple choice tests ands essays)

We can change our instructional methods to be more diverse or multimodal (which has nothing to do with  multimedia or multisensory pedagogy) as well. Multimodal teaching means incorporating diverse methods of content delivery that best fit the learning goals of that unit. I am talking about going beyond bringing in a guest speaker, adding a You Tube clip to your powerpoints, or doing small group activities in class. I am suggesting more radical changes like:

  • a flipped classroom
  • community-based research/learning initiatives
  • integrating interactive technology like prezis or clickers
  • interdisciplinary curricula (not ‘team teaching’)
  • required internships

The trend uniting most of these suggestions is the creation of a ‘big picture’. My goal for my students progresses across the course from the acquisition of knowledge to the application of knowledge. As a result, my instructional methods and assessments reflect that evolution. Whereas I begin by asking them to demonstrate that they understand the theories of development and learning outlined by Piaget and Vygotsky through an educational product analysis, I move them to the creation of their own educational paradigm as their final. The latter requires knowledge of the former, but it also pushes them to identify inaccuracies, gaps, and associated outcomes of theories in order to offer a better suggestion. My students must not only understand the social and cognitive developmental trajectory of K-12 students, but they must also recognize the inability of any pedagogy to adequately meet the needs of all students—a huge problem with our public education system. To make the stakes more real for my students, their final projects are often proposed to a local school board as suggestions for a pilot program aimed at improving specific aspects of student learning.

Students (and people in general) are so quick to criticize, but so slow in offering solutions. This is my attempt to offer them the opportunity to truly reflect on course content and its place in the larger body of education-related knowledge. Even more, they get to ‘live’ the difficulties of teaching, research, and translating theory into practice (because they are required to substantiate their claims with empirical support and construct and enact an example lesson plan reflective of their paradigm).

It is a lot of work for them and for me. But this assessment always emerges as a favorite aspect of the course on evaluations. I honestly am not sure why they like it so much. It could be the novelty, the creativity involved, or maybe it’s (as I like to think) because it’s a good assessment of their content knowledge as well as their metacognitive skill development. But regardless of the reason, my students ‘get something’ from the experience.

And I didn’t even have to involve ‘critical thinking’.